Petra

Monday, 19th November, 2012
Petra

For all pictures on the trip taken at Petra on the 19th of November, 2012. To sign up for Dropbox, use this link: http://db.tt/rvgBYop

Today had one agenda: a walking tour of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra.

Petra is indeed one of the wonders of the world. There is nothing else like it. Describing it would take many pages and more time than I have this evening. I took over 500 pictures and a good many videos today, trying in vain to capture a visual sense of the place.

What is Petra? The name says it all: Rock. A city carved into and built upon rock – in a grand – nay, immense – scale. The Nabataean people – an ancient Arabian civilization – began it about 300 years before the birth of Christ, and it continued to flourish as a centre of trade and government under the Romans, and then the Byzantines, before fading as a centre during the Islamic period. The Crusaders where there and knew of it, but after that the West forgot about its existence, until it was “rediscovered” by a Swiss explorer in 1812. Since then it has been extensively excavated, and the excavations are continuing today, especially in those sections of the city built out of, rather than into, the rock. For more information and pictures: Google it.

Despite being a flourishing and major city in the time of Jesus, the bible does not mention Petra at all by name, but has significance nonetheless. It is in the biblical territory of Edom, and had political clout at the time of Jesus, defeating an army of Herod Antipas soon after he beheaded John the Baptist (and related to the fact that he had married his brother’s wife – after divorcing the daughter of the governor of Petra – Josephus says that soldiers in Herod’s army saw the defeat as God’s punishment for executing the Baptist). Possibly Paul visited Petra during his time in Arabia after his conversion (the Roman “Province of Arabia” – which Luke probably means when he says that this is where Paul went – was centred on Petra).

We left the hotel at 9am this morning on foot (the Moevenpick is right at the entrance of the Petra Reserve) and arrived back at 5pm. We must have covered somewhere between 8 and 10 kms all up, so we are a bit footsore tonight. The entrance is through the Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses). If you have ever visited Standley Chasm in Central Australia, imagine this, about a kilometre or more long, and paved with ancient stones (or concrete as much of it is today). At the end, you come to the most famous monument in the city, the “Treasury” (actually it was a tomb, not a treasury, but the locals thought for many years that this was where the Pharaoh hid his treasure). From there, you enter into the city proper, which is in a large open area beyond this, although there are many other tombs like the “Treasury”, many larger, but not as well preserved. A notable feature is an entire theatre carved into the rock face.

In the city itself are two major temples. The one furthest down at the other end of the city is a structure still largely intact, very much on the same layout as Herod’s temple in Jerusalem. It has a large outside altar area and an inner “holy of holies” where the statue of the local god was housed. In the centre of the city is another temple recently excavated from the hills, which is best appreciated in design by climbing the opposite hillside. On this opposite hill is the ruin of a Byzantine Christian complex, including a well sized church with many intact and intricate mosaics (now covered by a modern roof protection) and a baptistery. The complex also includes the smaller “blue chapel” higher up the hill, with four striking columns in a bluish granite from Egypt, and the bishop’s residential area. Yes, Petra was the seat of a bishop, and the records show that the bishop attended the major councils of Nicea and Constantinople. Still today, the bishop of Amman is named “Bishop of Philadelphia (Amman) and Petra”, so it is not a “vacant” see.

Worth a close investigation (after a climb up a number of steps) is the ancient and spacious Nabataean tomb carved into the rock face which was used as the Cathedral of Petra during the Byzantine period. The ruins of the Crusader fortress is on top of a high rock at the farthest end of the city (accessible, but I didn’t go there), and on a much higher rock again there is evidence of a settlement from about 800 BC, ie. in the period of the Kings of Judea and Israel. Visible from the city is the mountain known in the bible as “Mount Hor”, on which Aaron is said to have been buried (this is a day trip in itself and a strenuous climb).

Our guide, Fadi, gave us a detailed tour of the city and its features until 2pm, after which he left us to explore for ourselves. We had lunch (sandwiches of flat bread, vegetables and fruit) at a kiosk. At about 3pm I had to stop myself and slow down a bit – I had been running excitedly up and over every possible site taking pictures. So I sat in the old church, plugged myself into the Divine Office app on my iphone and said/listened to afternoon prayer. Within the “cathedral” we enjoyed the marvellous acoustics by singing liturgical songs that came to mind, Alleluias, Kyries, and a Pater Noster. Outside the cathedral tomb, I bought an Arab head covering from a Bedouin, in the red and white Jordanian colours. I stuffed my deerstalker in my pocket, and he fitted me up with this new addition to my hat collection. It was very comfortable to wear, keeping the sun off and also providing some neck protection from the cool wind that picked up in the afternoon.

Fr Bernie, Versi and I were among the last tourists to leave the city, and sat at the coffee house at the “Treasury”, where I smoke a pipe and we drank the sweet, thick local coffee made with cardamom. By this stage, the square was quiet and almost deserted. It felt like an incredible privilege just to be there. Walking back up the chasm to the entrance, we were passed by the Bedouins on their horses, donkeys, camels and carriages (used to give rides to the tourists) returning home to their residential village on the hill just above the city (they used to live in the city itself until they were relocated in 1985). These people make their living out of the tourists to Petra, providing rides and selling souvenirs.

Back at our luxury resort, I had a swim in the pool (cold) and sat for a while in the steam room, before dressing for dinner. We had mass in a meeting room upstairs, before going down for our evening meal.

Tomorrow we will head down south to Aqaba on the gulf, where we will cross (on foot!) into Israel. We will then head up to the Dead Sea (for a swim – or float as the case may be), and then to Jerusalem.

There have continued to be a series of noisy demonstrations in the streets of Wadi Musa over the last twenty four hours. We saw these when we entered last night. Fadi told us that these were in fact “anti-riot” demonstrations, locals protesting at the violence that has affected some Jordanian centres in the last few days. These demonstrations, like the one I saw in Amman, take the form of the protesters driving their cars in long lines through the streets honking their horns. Noisy, yes, but “peaceful” nevertheless. We received a report from another tour group who visited Jericho yesterday that it is quite safe, so keep up those prayers.

As I was sitting in the ruined church today, I was struck that the psalms for the afternoon hour were 126, 127 and 128 – psalms that I had read together with my family before leaving for this pilgrimage. They are “psalms of ascent”, originally written for pilgrims going up to the temple in Jerusalem. The hymn for the office was “Christ, in whose passion once was sown”, which ended with the words “called by the Lord to keep one feast, journey to one Jerusalem.” That’s what I will be doing tomorrow.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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